The Top 8 Ideas Worth Adopting from the Chinese

By: Kathleen Siddell

You may have heard the pollution in Shanghai recently has been literally, off the charts. We have been watching as buildings disappear from our front window into the thick yellowish grey sludge as the "Air Quality Index" rose from severely polluted to hazardous to "beyond index."  So, we've been inside - building forts, crashing toy cars and breaking the rule of no bike riding inside. Our apartment seems to be shrinking by the day. So believe me, I know there are days when being an expat isn't all, "can't wait to try that! Let's go there! Let's do that!" No. When you read in the paper you are living in a place "barely habitable for humans" you can either panic, cry and grab your passport, or take a deep breath and…oh wait, no. We can't do that. In times like these, my friends, we expats have to dig deep to remember crying and panicking won't change anything. Instead, we have to remember China is good for…delivery! I can get a bottle of wine and (probably) a gas mask delivered right to my polluted front door step!  And we can read about all of the brilliant and necessary changes the government is making to solve the problem in local papers!  

Luckily, I started this post before the Great Shanghai "Smogapocalypse" hit and it's allowed me to focus on the more attractive qualities of China and lessons I've learned from my adopted home. So, I present to you, the top 8 (yes, 8.  It's an auspicious number! See point 7 below.) ideas the world should adopt from China. 

1. The old are to be respected. I'm from the US, where the elderly are treated as a burden; where a billion dollar industry exists for the sole purpose of trying (in vain) to stop the inevitable aging process; where getting older is a process to be mourned. Old people are confined to depressing nursing homes with perhaps, organized outings to casinos, outlet malls or second rate musicals, where upon arrival, they are greeted with sighs and rolling eyes. There slow movement and less than stellar hearing are annoyances and as such, they (generally) aren't treated very well. It's no wonder there is a stereotype about the "grumpy old man" - the elderly curmudgeon who scowls, hunched over, at anyone who comes close.  If you were treated as a second class citizen during the sunset of your life, you'd be a little grumpy too. 

In China, the elderly are out and about, happily shuffling along, usually in the company of others. They dance on street corners in the mornings and play cards in the park. People talk to them. The young play with them. They are not shipped off to nursing homes. They live with their families as the wise, elder statesmen (and women). They are part of society and respected. Their years of living in a much different generation, are treated with honor. They aren't seen as disposable but rather in-disposable, with vaults of wisdom to be shared. The elderly are a gift. I think it should be this way everywhere. 

2. Similarly, the young are cherished. Okay, maybe it's true that everyone, everywhere loves adorable babies. But they view children differently here. People talk about the "wonder in a child's eyes" but I actually think it's the opposite here. There is a wonder in adult eyes when they are looking at children. Of course, I've certainly seen instances of harried parents screaming at a petulant child, but for the most part, the Chinese seem to truly enjoy children. Not just their own, but all. The one child policy might have something to do with this but I think there is more. People in the US talk about how "it takes a village" but in China, they seem to actually believe this. Perhaps it is due to their collectivist history or perhaps because the "ayi" (auntie/nanny caring for others' children as her own) is so prevalent, but there seems to be a greater understanding that the youth are the future of their nation, culture and heritage and as such, they are the responsibility of all adults - teachers, parents, grandparents, ayies, neighbors. What a feeling this must give to kids - those adorable spoiled brats. 

3. In keeping with the "how to treat people" theme, I think the Chinese view of employment should be modeled: there is a job for everyone and everyone deserves the chance to make a living. Whether you push a broom, wash an already clean street or dangle from a skyscraper, the Chinese are part of a society that (seemingly) looks after one another. Sure there is corruption and a somewhat rigid class structure, but the idea that all people can and should contribute is a powerful message.  Okay, so maybe they do not have the best record of "all men are created equal," but they are, at least, honest about it. Some are born to be CEOs and some are born to push brooms, but there is a dignity to earning your own living that maybe (?) eases the sting of little upward mobility. Not sure about this one so feel free to criticize. 

4. On a lighter note, one thing the fashionista of Shanghai have taught me is that, if you like it, wear it. There are no rules here when it comes to fashion. I've tried to document some of the outrageousness but really, I think it's best if I just give you a choice few words: see-through, plastic booties (on adult women); thigh high stockings with a micro-mini skirt to show them off; tights under shorts; glitter and sparkles; black on navy on brown; patterns on patterns on patterns; sky high heels on a lazy Sunday morning. And my personal favorite, couples that dress as twins - same shoes, t-shirts, accessories.  

I know people wear questionable attire everywhere but here it seems more the norm. Seriously, anything goes. Anything. But women, and men with their trendy man purses, walk with confidence. They strut their stuff at all hours of the day, all days of the week. When everyone looks kinda crazy, what's the sense in trying to conform to some arbitrary set of rules? 

5. Like fashion, this one really only works if the whole world embraces the philosophy, but how about we give up the idea of queuing? It's so…Western. There's something to be said for pushing your way to the front. There are some valuable life lessons to be learned from circling up or standing in a big clump. Some days will work in your favor and just by luck, you will find yourself pushed up to the front. Some days you won't mind hanging in the back and waiting. Some days you'll be looking for a fight, and who better to fight than a bunch of strangers? Some days you won't want to push, but will suck it up and do it anyway because you've got somewhere to be. Point is, life isn't fair and neither is neglecting the queue, but as long as you know this is the way it is and prepare accordingly, you'll save yourself lots of frustration (and maybe even learn to like it). 

6. It's no secret that I am not the biggest fan of the vegetarian unfriendly cuisine in Shanghai. However, I do have an appreciation for the way the Chinese view food. Food is not only sustenance but also medicine. Sure, I've seen first hand the reliance on, and overuse of, Western medicine but I think beyond the ex-pat bubble, the Chinese prefer to eat certain foods to cure certain ailments and prevent further health problems. I think this creates a much healthier relationship with food than in the West (or in the US, at least). Traditional meals are carefully planned to include the right combination of ingredients, herbs and condiments to bring you maximum health benefits. They pay particular attention to how you eat (small bites) and the colors on the plate, all with an idea towards preventing illness. And while some of their ideas may not be "based in science" (i.e. pineapples are good for longevity), the attempt to view the food you put in your body as the best determiner of well-being (as opposed to say, a pill) is admirable. (I know the West is improving in this respect but believing your diet can help cure your cancer is still not the norm.) And while we're on the topic, while I don't know much about Eastern medicine, I think if I were to contract some awful disease I would be open to trying it. 

7. So, if I'm going to start going all voodoo medicine, I may as well come out and admit that I think all the wacky superstitious stuff is actually pretty cool and maybe worth adopting.  If you are religious, I can see why you might disagree here. But with all due respect to Western religions, what's the difference between believing eating certain foods will ensure long life, and believing if you follow certain rituals, you will ensure a long after-life? I'm not particularly superstitious by nature, but I feel like it certainly couldn't hurt to adhere to some of their beliefs. And, like Western religion, I think it's probably common to believe in some of the traditional superstitions but not others. Here a couple of my favorites: 

--Clipping nails at night is bad luck. Done. Never again.

--Never place the master bedroom above the garage. I feel like this has more to do with keeping tabs on the person with whom you share a bed in order to ensure a healthy relationship but easy enough. I'm sold.

--Staircases should only have an even number of steps. Duh. 

--Switch on all the lights in the house before going gambling. I'm not much of a gambler but I'll keep this mind.

--Wearing red bring you luck. Can't hurt to try. 

--Leave the noodles in your noodle soup uncut and you will increase your longevity. I hope I'm wearing red while eating this so I don't choke! 

--The number 8 is lucky, 4 and 7 are not. Obviously. I was born on the 8th. 

These are easy to follow. There is nothing about having to go and convert others to believe this so I see it as a win-win. 

8. What impresses me most about China however, is its ability to adapt. They have endured thousands (thousands!) of years of war, disease, invasion, prosperity, more war, more disease…and yet, they endure and adapt. Today, the rapid pace of change in Shanghai is evident by the literal change in the skyline. Two decades ago, my neighborhood, with some of the world's tallest skyscrapers, was rice paddies. Maybe not all Chinese are embracing these changes, but they are adapting.

China still holds a mysterious appeal for many in the West. Before arriving in Shanghai, my impressions of China were based on the history and culture taught in Western schools from outdated textbooks that couldn't possibly keep up with the rate of change here. There are elements of all that history and tradition everywhere but it's integrated with Starbuck's and oversized malls. On the surface, Shanghai can appear to be very Western. For better or worse, they've opened themselves up to the West and are adapting to new people, new ideas, new ways of doing business. But if you spend some time here, you will see how they still hold tightly to their history and culture (there is no 4th floor in our building!).

The Chinese don't have an identity crisis the way some Americans do. And like a 60 year old who answers to no one and is completely secure in who they are, the Chinese are proving they can change, but will do so on their own terms. As the West continues to creep into every corner of the globe, I hope the Chinese retain that certain air of mystery that a sophisticated and cosmopolitan 60 year old does. 

I am by no means an expert on China. I'm not even sure if I'm a very good expat, but maybe I've convinced you that these ideas are worth at least some consideration. If not, may you raise your 4 children to be rigid, unemployed, fashion rule followers, with an unhealthy relationship with food who will eventually be shipped off to a dingy nursing home to become nasty curmudgeons. 


About the author

Expat Blog ListingKathleen Siddell is an American expat living in China. Blog description: Living the good life in Shanghai
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Contest Comments » There are 4 comments

Cristin Kelly wrote 10 years ago:

What a fascinating read. Thanks for sharing these observations. It does, indeed, sound like we in the West would do well to adopt some of these traditions, particularly reverence for the older generation and a healthier attitude towards our food. Really interesting.

Sarah wrote 10 years ago:

Fascinating take aways from your time so far in China. I'm envious of your ability to immerse yourself in a new culture and to notice so much about how it works differently from our own, and in such a positive way. I have to ask: Why no bedroom over a garage? Seems a silly superstition for an entire country to adopt. ;)

Sarah Hague wrote 10 years ago:

Very interesting Kelly. I think the Chinese are right about food and medicine. Some foods are superfoods in that respect. I don't envy you the smog, but it must be a fascinating experience living in Shanghai.

Ellen Siddell wrote 10 years ago:

Hooray! Finally a well thought, insightful commentary on life in another culture. We could learn many good lessons and values from our far-eastern neighbors that share this planet with us. Our own elderly should be revered, honered, and taken care of as sources of experience and wisdom. We must cherish our children, our future generations, if we want a civilized, peaceful world. We must preserve the dignity of the individual by meaningful employment and respect everyone's uniqueness. This entry explained and presented the observations in this insightful, very readable commentary. Bravo. Well said.

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